Lab therapy


Ice cream makes everything better. 

I did something crazy the other day. It was one of those laboratory clean up days that precedes the arrival of important visitors and the lab was abuzz with activity. Holding a tray of 100 samples, I walked up to a group of people and stopped their conversation.

“Watch this!” I said and tipped the whole tray of samples into the bin. The crowd gasped in shock and awe and someone said “how could you?!” I just grinned in triumph.

Throwing out samples is one of the hardest things researchers have to do. Samples can take days, weeks or sometimes months to prepare for analysis and by that time they become more precious than platinum.

Even when the project is finished and even after the paper is written, even then the final stage of getting rid of the samples is still gut-wrenching.

What if one of the tests needs to be repeated? What if something else needs to be measured? Some tests only need 25 uL of sample and having to repeat months-worth of work for 25 uL is why therapy was invented. This sort of thing can take years to come to terms with.

There are, however, more effective means of therapy than sitting on a couch with a therapist. One of them is smashing glassware. Admittedly, this is only recommended when disposing of glassware that is already broken. Scientific glassware is never cheap but there’s no point gently disposing of something that has a hairline fracture when you’re having a bad day.

Another great remedy for frustration is hurling something out of a window, preferably the instrument causing the frustration. Although, given that the cost of analytical instruments can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, this one is best left to fantasy.

As for my recent craziness, those samples had been on my bench for months as a ‘just in case’. And then I realised I didn’t actually need them. The trial hadn’t worked and it was a complete do-over so there was really no point in keeping the 300 samples.

The simple act of throwing out these samples made me feel lighter, like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders, and just plain old happy because of the giddy recklessness of it. That’s better than therapy any day.

Remember to breath


Driving across inland Australia is not at all like being in the lab


It’s incredible how much the Australian landscape looks nothing like a laboratory. I just spent a week travelling through the interior not by plane or train but by car. And for no particular reason other than it is a really great way to spend a holiday.

The trouble with research is that it is all about details. While details are critically important for progress to be made and problems to be solved, the constant focus on details can create a closed mind-set. The result is that we researchers can forget to look up from our daily pattern of struggling from one detail to the next and see the broader picture of what we are working towards.

Taking regular breaks should be compulsory for anyone working in research. This provides time for rethinking projects, reassessing priorities and even some problem-solving.

Driving holidays are really useful for this sort of time out. Kilometre upon kilometre of clear thinking space complete with great music and a multitude of snack food. Nothing speaks of leaving the lab behind like passing mobs of kangaroos and emus in the open plains.

Of course other holidays are great for time-out and clear thinking. The key is to get away from the lab bench and that’s the hard part. There’s so often ‘just one more thing’ that needs doing and then the next time you look up, 6 months have passed.

My mentor once told me that it’s always a bad time to have holidays, but if you don’t plan for them, you never take them. Sage advice. Now I lock in holidays far in advance and work around them. And every single time, I am completely flat out busy getting things done before I go and yet I always return refreshed and eager.

Any sort of break is essential to clear the head and see all the mistakes that can happen when spending all the time looking at details. We just need to remember to take that break.

Accidental talents


Working in a lab may make you a better dancer. Image: 

Research scientists have unusual skill sets. Some skills are expected, like good experimental designs and writing decent scientific papers. But other skills develop as side effects of repeated lab work that are just plain weird. Useful, but weird.

One of the key skills that I’ve developed is the ability to transfer small amounts of liquid from one vial to another. I should really have that on my resume. My entire PhD consisted of evaporating solvent from compounds that I isolated from leaves and then dissolving them in the smallest volume possible. And then transferring that concentrated solution to a more convenient container. An important skill.

Another accidental talent of many researchers is the Art of Finding Stuff. Before any new experiment can begin, Stuff must be found. Mostly containers. Science revolves around the particular vessels that are available for storing liquids and many experiments are designed around the size and number of available storage containers.

Labs also contain many hidden and long forgotten chemicals and glassware buried in the back of drawers labelled with very unhelpful names like “Things in here”. The real skill comes from remembering what’s actually in these drawers from the last round of rummaging, thus reducing the time taken to locate useful items.

One of the more unexpected skills that I’ve developed as a researcher is dancing. I don’t mean the tragic happenings that occur when I listen to dance music, which is unfortunately more related to seizures than elegance. I mean the delicate balance of interactions that come from performing coinciding experiments with other lab users that is surely on par with the grace required for, say, ballroom dancing.

The necessary politeness needed to work very closely in another’s space and the acknowledgement that both parties must move in a particular way to meet similar objectives are common elements in both dancing and lab work. There’s also the inevitable give and take required for both parties to achieve their objectives. With practice, this becomes smoother and more natural, making this more art form than science.

More often than not that act of doing science takes much more than scientific knowledge and we don’t even realise that we’re building these skills. If only that was the same for exercise.

The black hole of research time management


Time management in research can be a bit surreal. Image:

Time management in research is something of a dark art. The golden rule is to carefully calculate how long it takes to do the various tasks and test the various samples. And then triple it. And add a week.

This generally works well for most projects, but sometimes an experiment reaches a tipping point beyond which the time required to finished the project escalates exponentially. Some liken it to crossing the event horizon of a black hole, beyond which time has no meaning. This is exactly what happened to me this week.

All I really wanted was to test four samples. Four. That’s a small number, it should be easy to get that done. And then I realised I had to include controls because that’s science.  The treatments have to be compared to samples without treatments. And compared to a positive control, a treatment that is known to work, just to make sure the method is actually working as it should.

So that’s up to 6 samples. That’s still a small number. No problems.

But then I want to test all these samples in different conditions. After all, just because it works in one, doesn’t mean it works in all of them and vice versa. And then I’ll need controls for each of those different conditions as well.

Now I’m up to about 40 samples. That’s a bigger number but still manageable.

And then I need to consider doing everything in triplicate because that’s also science. Just because it works once, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a fluke. Or something else happened to the sample so the effect wasn’t actually anything to do with the treatment.

And suddenly there are 120 samples. That is a lot of samples. Now everything takes infinitely more time and I have to factor in little things that are normally taken for granted. Like labelling sample tubes. That’s the morning gone.

And there are just too many samples to comfortably fit into the handy carry containers and too many to run the tests all in one go. The time it takes to do anything has spiralled out to infinity. My quick and easy test has become a major undertaking with exponentially greater complexity and a very distant end point.

My only solace is that at the end of it, when I eventually get there, I know that the results will be real effects and the science behind those results will be sound. That makes for a project that is more likely to pass the peer-review and add to the global understanding of that topic.

But first I need to navigate this black hole.